7

I am a postdoc in life sciences in the US and have started my postdoc around 6 months ago. I am at a great (top-10) university. I like the university, lots of smart people and friendly environment. I love my work and plan to stay in academia. I am from europe and have left home just for the postdoc.

I am, however, very worried because my PI does not seem to bother too much about our career prospects. Some points:

He is often away from the lab due to family-related problems. He spends a lot of time with his family (has 2 kids). Although that is great, he does not spend much time in the lab, forgets meetings, is not up to date with current research and often does not have time for supervision (this was the case even before the pandemic). He always comes up with some excuse but after a while it has become clear that his priority is just very much somewhere else than research.

Currently, the lab is supposed to write a grant. He has left that to us, he says that he is too depressed because of the current situation with COVID-19 to be able to focus on work. This is very worrisome, because our future is dependent on the grant, yet at the same time he wants us postdocs to go back to the lab as soon as possible (presumably to keep face and show the university our lab is active, while at the same time he does not seem to care about what happens to us postdocs).

In addition, we have currently submitted a paper (~2 years of work from the lab) which gets rejected from all top-tier journals.

He has a lot of good properties, he listens to our opinions, accepts criticism, leaves us a lot of freedom. As mentioned the university is great too. I am highly motivated and love research, but worry extremly that I am just wasting my time. I have my own money for now but can't change labs easily and would prefer to stay at the uni.

What should I do?

Edit I do understand that as a postdoc it is important to be independent. I am. I have learned several relevant skills, have my own ideas, I am generally quite pro-active. But typically as a postdoc you can also join an environment which allows us to find your own goals within the work of the lab. My PI is just so out of touch with everything, that his ideas are completely outdated. He just does not take research seriously (even though he still wants me to publish asap again under the current circumstances). Hence he can't also give me any guidance (he suggests experiments which have been done many years ago already) and, worse, does not even bother to change that.

Edit2 The PI just fired the other postdoc in my lab. I am under a complete shock. Basically a mix of blaming the other postdoc for not advancing with the grant proposal (PI promised many times to finally get it together and work on the proposal) which was never really officially discussed as being our task to begin with. Yet he has the audacity to whine during the "crisis" meeting with me about how sad his family life is (his kids can't go to school which they don't like yada yada) and then to interrupt the meeting to go and play basketball with his kids. I have told him now that I want to have a co-supervisor and he has promised to reach out to people. He is so reckless, selfish, if he does not get it together I will change labs even if I lose my fellowship.

  • 1
    You are a postdoc. This means, that you are expected to have some degree of independence. What input do you need from your PI? Why was the paper rejected? Is it salvageable? Do you have other papers in the pipeline? – Captain Emacs May 18 at 0:35
  • 1
    I am generally really very independent. Right now I have taken on organizing our online meetings bec. he can't do any of it, but as mentioned below even before the pandemic he was often away doing other things. I do need input though on general research direction, on the grant proposal. In general, knowing him, he is the type who tries to squeeze out of you as much as he can, but then forgets all appointments and promises on his side. Rejection: Desk-rejection. Do have other papers, but without some direction from someone with experience not sure how well they will turn out. – Pugl May 18 at 0:44
  • 2
    @Pugl You could certainly apply somewhere else. Not an expert, but I assume that your visa would probably be extended if you find another job. To me, it sounds like a great university isn't worth the misery of dealing with a poor advisor. Collaborators would be an option to improve the situation, of course. – lighthouse keeper May 18 at 7:29
  • 1
    @Pugl You have two choices: you really take over as effective PI, i.e. you proceed as you think fit, make your own decisions on the scientific direction and then just get his formal approval for the last step (assuming he is not the type that throws everything down the table on the last day before the deadline); or you seek another group where you find a more assertive/present PI. Keep in mind that if you compensate your PI's deficits well, this may make you more valuable to them. Whether they will be "grateful", it's hard to know, but it trains you for the future. – Captain Emacs May 18 at 9:23
  • 1
    @ssquidd I think there's three separate issues here: unavailability, unreliability, exploitation. Unavailability (e.g., having no time for meetings) would be fine and give the postdoc the opportunity to develop their leadership skills. Unreliability (e.g. flaking on arranged meetings) is unprofessional, but might be acceptable, depending on your mileage. Exploitation (e.g., letting his postdocs write a major grant proposal and claiming the credit for it; sending them to the lab during a pandemic, while ignoring safety recommendations) is hardly acceptable. – lighthouse keeper May 19 at 7:46
6

Of all you say, the only indication I see of irresponsibility is his desire, you say, to send you back to the lab before it is safe. The rest is understandable.

We live in perilous times. He may be entirely correct in focusing on his parental duties and may have no other option with child care essentially non existent in many places. Many people are depressed now, but it isn't a sign of lack of responsibility. "Forcing" you to write a grant can be a boost to your career and he might have wanted to do that in the best of times.

Not getting accepted into the top journals can be pretty common and may not be his fault, or at least not entirely.

And yet you say he has many good qualities.

As to what you should do, I recommend that you maintain social distancing for your own safety. But beyond that, just carry on as best you can and hope that the horrors of the current situation don't increase or become cyclic. Make sure that you don't burn bridges with your professor, as that will make your next career steps (after the pandemic) much harder.

Encourage the professor to deal effectively with depression if you can, and deal with your own if you feel those twinges.

You are in a bad situation. A worldwide pandemic tends to cause that. It is no consolation, but in other times and places it was much worse.


Another consideration you might make as to the level of his responsibility is how helpful he is at getting postdocs their next position. If he gives good support and they wind up in good positions, then you can put up with some things that wouldn't make sense otherwise.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    No, he has been always like this. Even before the current situation he was forgetting meetings and making up reasons which were not true, doing work on personal projects not related to research and coming up with excuses. Expecting us to push the lab forward while he was not taking on his responsibilities. – Pugl May 18 at 0:37
  • 1
    "to go back to the lab as soon as possible" doesn't seem to imply the PI is pressuring them "to [go] back to the lab before it is safe", at least in my opinion. – jDAQ May 18 at 0:38
  • 3
    '"Forcing" you to write a grant can be a boost to your career' If OP gets to be PI on the grant, yes. If the grant is submitted under the current PI's name and with some subordinate role for OP, the accepted grant is a positive entry on OP's CV, but not a career boost. Arguably, in the latter situation (which seems to apply: "the lab is supposed to write a grant"), the current PI is exploiting his post-docs. – lighthouse keeper May 18 at 4:33
  • 1
    @lighthousekeeper Exactly. He is going to be the author, not us. He is pushing all the work and responsibility on us. – Pugl May 18 at 4:55
  • 3
    A PI is responsible for their group's safety and career even during a pandemic. Especially, it seems that his irresponsibilities are not tied to the recent events but run deeper. I also had a PI who did not keep up to research, always used his family as an excuse (we were sympathetic for a long time, but eventually you realize that there is a limit to exploit other people's sympathy with this excuse - they are not your family). The difference was that he was not even nice.. OP, your best possibility is to find an other research group. Do not try to change his behavior, change your environment. – aqua May 18 at 13:48

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.